The Sioux Literary Renaissance (review)
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The American Indian Quarterly 25.4 (2001) 657-659



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Ruth J. Heflin. "I Remain Alive": The Sioux Literary Renaissance. Syracuse NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000. xi + 223 pp. Appendixes, works cited, index. Cloth, $29.95.

Without implying that there was a preceding Dark Age, Ruth Heflin would have us think of the work of Charles Eastman, Luther Standing Bear, Gertrude Bonnin, Ella Cara [End Page 657] Deloria, and Nicholas Black Elk between Wounded Knee and the end of World War II as a Sioux literary renaissance—a rebirth. This period is a rebirth in two senses, both because these writers were endeavoring to preserve a culture many thought was dying and because their writing is a hybridization of Sioux and Euro-American literary traditions.

Except for Black Elk, says Heflin, these writers have been largely dismissed as "transitional" (x), and scholars have focused on the "negative aspects of intercultural experience" and on biographical rather than literary concerns (ix). Heflin, on the other hand, describes them as "interstitial" writers, open to both the positive and the negative aspects of their two cultures, and as "modernist" writers like Faulkner, Eliot, Woolf, and Joyce, whose textual experiments are worthy of careful literary analysis (10). These writers aretransitional, though, in the sense that they lived at a time when more Euro-Americans saw Indians as human beings and potential citizens and more Indians considered adopting aspects of Euro-American culture. In this transitional context Heflin finds "five very complex, intercultural, interstitial human beings" trying to do their best for themselves, their families, their tribes, and their nation (18).

Each of the five writers is individuated in a separate chapter. Eastman, for instance, is the "fire starter" of the renaissance (77), a "civilized warrior" (48, 75), and a "hybrid" (73). This "kind of savior for his people" (46) accepted the "'Christ ideal,' yet maintained the pursuit of preserving his Indian identity amid the savagery of civilization" (48). And Heflin finds in a careful analysis of the shift in narration from first to third person of "Hakadah's First Offering" evidence that Eastman is "more human being than a creature of a specific culture" (60). On the other hand, the key to Standing Bear, whom Heflin pictures in competition with Eastman, is "to reassert the power and the voice of the Sioux Nation through his inherited standing as chief" at a time when the Sioux were losing their political voice (84). Standing Bear is most traditional in Indian values and least literary in Western terms, arguing, in a "very Sioux-like" challenge, for instance, for a "return to tribal ideals" (98).

Bonnin, perhaps more Indian than Eastman but less so than Standing Bear, wrote "to influence and change Euro-American opinions about Indians, opening their eyes to abuses, such as land frauds" (111). Bonnin focuses on "inevitable conflicts" but is the "epitome of a person who can and does balance the two cultures in her life" (119); she is, in fact, one of the first Indian writers, if not the first, "to argue for being allowed to live as both Indian and American" (121). Bonnin wrote to "halt the victimization of Indians by Euro-Americans," filling the Dakota woman's role "to perpetuate her culture... while still becoming an American citizen" (133).

Deloria, anthropologist by trade, translated Dakota tales so that the American public could "see life" from the Indian "point of view" (140). The result, because of her extensive Euro-American education, is an active interweaving of the two traditions, "perfect examples of interstitial writing and creativity" (146). And after glossing Waterlilywith symbols from the tales, Heflin finds it "an excellent example of a modernist novel," one that makes "a lesson in Sioux living as appealing and easy to understand as possible" (159). [End Page 658]

Black Elk Speaks,a combination of Black Elk's "Lakota-trained literary choices" and John Niehardt's "knowledge of Euro-American literary traditions," is the capstone of the renaissance (192). Heflin examines five textual choices made by both men to produce this "quintessential modernist text" (180). For...